Now (H)ear This

By Marcia Faye
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Mead Killion (M.S. MATH '70)
Photo: Michael Goss

In 1984, a gumdrop-sized object developed at Etymotic Research, Inc. turned the world of electroacoustics on its, well, ear. The squat cylinder, doughy like a gumdrop except for a length of thin, flexible tubing at one end, was a foam eartip with a unique distinction: it sealed the ear from outside ambient noise while delivering test tones and speech through the world's first "tubephone" insert earphone. Before then, earphones-also known as headphones-were designed for over-the-ear use. Because of its snug fit in the ear canal, an insert earphone allows for greater accuracy in testing, for example, by reducing ambient noise.

“The best seal you can get for the ear is foam that can be rolled down, put into the ear, and locked into place by expansion,” explains Mead Killion (M.S. MATH '70), Etymotic's founder, president, and chief technology officer. At Illinois Institute of Technology as part of Chicago Ideas Week last October, Killion pinched and rolled a gold-foil-wrapped version of the eartip between thumb and forefinger, then watched it re-conform to its original shape.

“If you put a tube into the foam, you'll still have noise isolation, but now you could put sound into the ear,” he adds. The gold foil wrapping was a later innovation, which made possible a comfortable electrical pickup deep in the ear canal for determining auditory brainstem response (ABR), a standard test that detects electrical signals to measure hearing and neurologic function in infants, children, and adults.

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Since that first eartip, Etymotic, which means “true to the ear,” has obtained more than 80 patents and has achieved a number of “world's first” titles for its products, which comprise instrumentation for auditory testing; insert earphones for music enhancement, as well as hearing protection; and hearing aid components. Killion’s early background in music and mechanics prepared him for perfecting devices that would allow artists to hear such subtleties as a singer's intake of breath while at the same time protecting their inner ears’ hair cells against excessive noise.

In the first grade, Killion began taking piano lessons, soon followed by the violin. As a young adult, he enjoyed rewiring junk jukeboxes and working under the hood of his 1939 Chevy with equal verve. Ham radio came later, as well as machine shop experience at Steel Industries while he was working his way through Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind. A fraternity brother knew of Killion’s interests and math aptitude, and urged him to interview for a job assisting hearing aid pioneer Elmer Carlson at Knowles Electronics in Itasca, Ill. Killion remained at Knowles for more than 20 years and left to start Etymotic with the rights to three projects he initiated under Carlson-the insert earphone, a high-fidelity hearing aid circuit, and an ABR testing device for infants. He earned his doctorate in audiology at Northwestern University, where he continues to teach a course in hearing aid electroacoustics.

Still running half-marathons at 72, Killion is known as much for his longtime advocacy for hearing protection as for his innovative products and handlebar mustache, a caricature of which is engraved on the circuitry of Etymotic's K-AMP high-fidelity hearing aids (along with the initials of all 10 engineers who helped develop the chip). After consulting with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1985, Killion introduced them to custom-molded Musician's Earplugs, developed by his early mentor Carlson, which provide a choice of three levels of sound reduction.

In 1991, Etymotic debuted the ER-4 series-the fourth-generation of Etymotic insert earphones-as the world’s first noise-isolating, high-fidelity earphones, reproducing sound that is at least 90 percent as accurate as a live performance while protecting artists from 98 percent of noise.

“Over the last few years, I have written and produced nearly 100 songs for ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ which means thousands of hours are spent monitoring sounds while composing and mixing,” says Earl Talbot Jr., drummer with Poi Dog Pondering, music producer, and founder of The Drum School of music instruction. “The ER-4s are now an integral part of the experience, allowing for a true reference at a much lower volume level.”

The company introduced the world’s first Bluetooth stereo earphones in 2006, reducing ambient noise levels by 30 decibels, followed by an iPhone headset two years later. More recently, an unexpected encounter on a flight showed Killion that his company’s reputation has entered the stratosphere. Upgraded to first class, he saw the co-pilot step out of the cockpit and speak with a flight attendant about the noise filling the small compartment. Killion approached the co-pilot and handed him a pair of Etymotic ER-20s, which reduce most noise to safe levels while maintaining clearly audible speech.

“He looked at the earplugs and the name, then pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket. Turns out the pilot had just told him to buy some!” says Killion. “It’s very gratifying to actually see that, rather than know just from your sales that your products are making a difference.”

More Online

Etymotic Research, Inc.: www.etymotic.com
“Metallica, Music, and Mead: An Interview with Mead Killion, Ph.D.”: www.audiology.org/news/interviews/Pages/20081124a.aspx